“There is not a better time in history to be a travel advisor,” said John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group (TLG), speaking at a 2023 Travel Leaders Network (TLN) media briefing. TLN is a division of TLG.
The pandemic, he said, really showed how important it is for consumers to have someone in whom they can trust to provide guidance and support when they travel. During the briefing, TLG executives announced several new programs for network advisors and provided numbers on the network’s strong growth.
—A new booking tool solution called Cruise Complete is being introduced with the previous CruisePRO being sunsetted. The platform, now in beta testing with full launch in the next quarter, is 100 percent web-based and features live inventory and pricing, the ability to select four cabins upfront, comprehensive post-booking modifications and more.
—A new leisure online booking tool is coming this year that will enable independent contractors and non-GDS advisors to book air, car and hotel. It will support New Distribution Capability (NDC) content and feature many tools like detailed seat maps, shopping for hotels by airport or address, and extensive commission information.
—A new Travelleaders.com multi-faceted search tool allows customers to search for an advisor by any combination of destination expertise, interest specialization and advisor location, e.g. “North Carolina travel agents specializing in Cancun honeymoons.”
—New itinerary content on Agent Profiler allows advisors to build customized itineraries as part of their specialized profiles to promote expertise within a destination.
—A Super Agent program launched last spring identifies top agents based on performance metrics including detailed profiles, level of expertise and positive customer feedback. These advisors will be elevated to displays at the top of searches. Over the first six months of the program, over 350 advisors qualified as Super Agents.
Reviewing travel sectors, Lovell said that river cruising had returned to pre-pandemic levels with a TravelStyle survey showing 16 million North Americans wanting to go on a river cruise again and 37 million North Americans wanting to go on one for the first time. He said that last year’s water level issues in Europe had never really become a crisis and that bookings have already begun for 2023 Christmas markets and beyond.
Last year was also a very good year for ocean cruising, said Lovell, despite the fact that only 72 percent of pre-pandemic capacity had been available.
Stephen McGillivray, chief marketing officer for TLG, said there is an interesting energy going on in the industry with cruise lines seeking to recapture market share from all-inclusive resorts, which had been more available during the pandemic. He said this takes the form of more promotions through the retail distribution system, a good thing for advisors.
TLN, said McGillivray, continues to add cruise line partners to its three cruise programs: Distinctive Voyages, which have TLN hosts on board; Amenity Dates with special amenities for TLN clients and Culinary Collection cruises with special culinary extras—like dinner with the chef—for TLN passengers.
On land, said Lovell, Europe is rebounding well and the relative weakness of the euro makes the continent very attractive for North American travelers. Domestic destinations that became popular during the COVID crisis—like national parks—are maintaining that interest. And sustainability, he said, is becoming more of a focus for travelers with TLG set to announce major initiatives this year.
In the big picture, said Lovell, leisure travel is thriving and TLN is not yet seeing worries about the economy or stock market affecting travelers’ mindsets. He said the big takeaway now is that consumers are confident in their financial situations and being able to travel and suppliers are confident in their ability to fill ships, resorts, etc.
Lovell said that pre-pandemic cruise sales had been 55 percent of all sales with land 45 percent. That was flipped during the pandemic because of lack of availability of ships but is now returning to a 50-50 level “where we think it should be.”
Roger Block, president of TLN, said the organization had added 260 new affiliates last year, representing $837 million in sales. He said affiliates range from mega-agencies like Avoya to small one-person agencies. TLN also added seven new franchises representing $135 million in sales. The organization, he said, is not only attracting many new members, but it is keeping a large percentage of current advisors.
TLN is introducing a number of new alliances, where advisors with similar interests join to share best practices and support. There are already a Luxury Alliance and an Independent Advisor Networks Alliance. The new ones will be a Honeymoon and Destination Wedding Alliance, to launch in February and, later this year, Technology and Growing Agencies Alliances.
While the agencies that form these alliances are theoretically competitors, said Block, they want to work together on issues like recruiting employees, winning customers, marketing and more.
On the marketing front, McGillivray, said that 20 percent of leads to TLN advisors have never worked with a travel advisor before—a 30 percent increase over pre-pandemic levels. He said that a strategic initiative for 2023 is to dramatically increase the message about the value of travel advisors in all communications, including magazines, multi-supplier publications, direct mail and emails. He said suppliers are happy to give space to TLN because “they love the way we tell their story to customers.”
Millennials, said McGillivray, are now the biggest chunk of people searching for advisors on Travelleaders.com because they are a generation that has always depended on ratings, reviews and recommendations—something that advisors can offer. Cory Voss, vice president of technology for TLN, said the new advisor search should simplify finding the perfect advisor. Block said TLN’s number one service is agent profiling.
Advisors are “hungry” to get better at social media, said McGillivray, and TLN is giving them the tools to do so. That includes a social share and scheduler tool where one click allows advisors to share organic promotions, blogs, and destination and interest-based content on their social channels—all of it created by TLN but appearing to look like it came from the advisor.
TLN is also providing downloadable reels and short-form videos because of the popularity of platforms like TikTok and Reels. In addition, TLN holds monthly 15-minute “Social Media Snacks” webinars to help advisors create their own content.
As a result of these efforts, said McGillivray, there was a 40 percent increase in leads to advisors in 2022—over 214,000. And January 2023 is already 72 percent ahead of the same month in 2022.
The number one challenge looking forward, said Block, is finding advisors on both the corporate and leisure side.
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